Penguins Notebook: Plenty still at stake in last three games

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Scouting report

Matchup: Buffalo Sabres at Penguins, 7:08 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.

TV, radio: Versus, WXDX-FM (105.9).

Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ryan Miller for Sabres.

Penguins: Are 2-1 against Sabres, including 5-4 shootout victory at home March 13. ... Sergei Gonchar trails Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom by one point in race to be NHL's highest-scoring defenseman. ... Have scored nine short-handed goals at home, second-most in league.

Sabres: Have Eastern Conference's best away record, 23-11-4. ... Miller has 37 victories, one shy of Don Edwards' team record. ... Nine of C Chris Drury's 37 goals have been winners.

Hidden stat: Penguins are 14-5-1 in past 20 one-goal games.

With three games left in the regular season, the Penguins do not have control of their destiny. But they're close.

If nothing else, they know that if they win their remaining games -- against Buffalo tonight at Mellon Arena, Thursday in Ottawa and at home Saturday against the New York Rangers -- they will finish no lower than fourth in the Eastern Conference.

Assuming they would defeat Ottawa in regulation, that would give the Penguins home-ice advantage in a first-round playoff matchup against the Senators.

What's more, if the Penguins can win those games, it would force New Jersey, which occupies first place in the Atlantic Division, to squeeze at least five points out of its remaining three games to claim the title.

The catch? The Penguins' remaining opponents are, collectively, 138-74-24, and highly motivated.

Buffalo can clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs with a victory tonight and would earn the Presidents' Trophy if it wins its final four games, Ottawa has an obvious incentive to finish ahead of the Penguins and the Rangers might well be competing for a playoff berth Saturday night.

Running the table clearly will be a daunting task, but not an impossibility.

"It's three teams that we've beaten at least twice [apiece] this year, so it's definitely something that's achievable," defenseman Brooks Orpik said.

For the moment, though, they are concentrating on the Sabres, who are poised to earn the fifth division championship in franchise history and will enter the playoffs as a favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

"We've proved we can beat good teams," center Sidney Crosby said. "You can't win all three at once, though. You have to make sure you focus on [the next opponent], especially when you're playing such good teams."

Wait and see on Whitney

Defeating the Sabres under ideal circumstances is a monumental challenge, and the Penguins' personnel situation tonight might be a bit less than perfect.

Defenseman Ryan Whitney was held out of yesterday's practice at Southpointe because of a sore groin and is officially listed as day-to-day. His status for tonight likely will be determined at the game-day skate.

Whitney, who works the point on the No. 1 power-play unit, is the Penguins' fifth-leading scorer, with 14 goals and 44 assists in 79 games. It was his goal with four seconds left in regulation that allowed the Penguins to pick up a point in what became a 5-4 overtime loss in Toronto Saturday.

Postseason push

Sabres left winger Thomas Vanek was benched during the Stanley Cup playoffs a year ago for spotty defensive work, but he has gone a long way toward earning redemption.

He enters the game tonight with a team-best 39 goals and a plus-minus rating of plus-40 that ties Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson for the best in the NHL.

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, though, has publicly challenged Vanek to perform to his potential when the stakes and intensity rise.

"The postseason is another level," Ruff told the Buffalo News. "The regular season is one, the postseason is another one. The last postseason was disappointing, but Thomas has had a great year. He should be excited to get into the postseason, but it's still going to be a big venture for him."

Vanek, claimed by the Sabres with the fifth choice in the 2003 entry draft, professed to be eager to prove that he can produce under pressure.

"Last year, obviously, didn't go as planned," he told the News. "But it happened, and it's in the past. I'm definitely looking forward to this year and proving everyone wrong."

Slap shots

The Sabres have won 50 games in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. ... Center Jochen Hecht needs one goal to become the seventh Sabre to reach 20; Buffalo hasn't had that many since 1983-84.


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